Does Formula 1 really need three hours of unrestricted practice on a grand prix weekend?
It’s ironic, then, that despite two sessions taking place around Albert Park on Friday, there is such little meaningful data to use to paint a true picture of how the rest of the Australian Grand Prix weekend is likely to play out. Through a tumultuous blend of a green track, GPS glitches causing traffic problems, plus red flag disruptions and rainfall, teams found themselves more unsure than usual about their performance after Friday’s practice day.
Fast and loose
But one conclusion that was neither a mystery nor a surprise was that Red Bull have serious pace, demonstrated by Max Verstappen recording the fastest time on Friday. His best lap of 1’18.790, achieved on soft tyres, not only topped the charts in the first practice session but also remained unmatched throughout the second. Fernando Alonso was closest behind, registering a time merely a tenth of a second slower in the second practice, albeit on the theoretically slower medium compound tyres.
As one of the fastest circuits on the calendar with equal emphasis on front tyre load in corners and traction out of the few slow corners, Melbourne should be well-suited to the RB19. Indeed, Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez topped the speed trap through the day – by 6km/h over Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and almost 10km/h over Alonso’s Aston Martin.
But despite going quickest, Verstappen looked the least comfortable in the car than he had been at any point in the early season – even spinning on the exit of turn four late in the opening hour. The early championship leader admitted he struggled to keep his tyres happy in the unusually cooler conditions.
“It was quite tough to switch the tyres on” he explained, “so that was difficult when you want to push immediately.
“There were also quite a few interruptions with the red flags, so we never really got into a rhythm. It was difficult to tell how the car felt as we never got a window where I thought we were on top of the tyres.”
It’s difficult to accurately assess how Perez compares. In the initial session, Perez primarily ran with the medium tyres, while in the 15 minutes before rainfall disrupted the second practice, he could not get a lap in without being frustrated by traffic which he later eloquently described as “a bit mental”.
“It felt like a lot of people still had issues with their GPS data…” he joked. “I think tomorrow there’s more or less plenty to do – too much to do in FP3. So I think we’re going to be somehow going a bit blind into the race, which should be interesting.”
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Who can catch Red Bull?
As is the pattern in 2023, Alonso and Aston Martin were closest to the Red Bulls on the times sheets as Friday drew to a close. As there is no real long run pace to compare them with, even comparing Alonso’s fastest lap to Verstappen’s overall best reveals little.
Verstappen set his best lap of the day on the soft tyres, while Alonso’s second session best was set with mediums. Verstappen was also as far as six tenths faster than Alonso’s second practice benchmark through the first two sectors, but lost almost all of it through the final sector despite not encountering any traffic.
Alonso was also one of many drivers who dedicated a large part of the first session to running tests on upgrades, rather than dialling in their set ups for this weekend, leaving him none the wiser as to how he may compare to the Red Bulls.
“We concentrated on some test items that we wanted to tick the box,” he explained. “And then in FP2, it was just a 20 minute session only. So still some jobs to do tomorrow, especially on the tyres into the race, some long runs or something that we were obviously missing today. But so far I think the car seems to behave well.”
Ferrari may not have made headlines with their performance during the opening day of the weekend, but after a frustrating start to the season, Charles Leclerc came away saying his car felt better than at the opening two rounds.
“It’s probably our most positive FP2 of the season,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean much, but at least it’s a Friday that finishes on a positive note.”
But despite his satisfaction with the feeling of the SF23, his team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr was keeping modest expectations of the team’s chances of competing against Red Bull, Aston Martin and Mercedes over the rest of the weekend.
“I think it’s fair to assume that in quali we will play with them,” was Sainz’s assessment. “But then in the race we should assume also that we should be one step behind like we were in Jeddah.”
Lewis Hamilton was also keeping a realistic perspective of Mercedes’ chances despite a lack of representative running to directly compare them to their rivals.
“We won’t be competing against the Red Bulls,” Hamilton offered frankly. “I think we’ve got pace to be around fifth area – the same as the last race.”
Hamilton’s team mate George Russell concurred. “I’d say that’s a fair assessment,” he said. “I think if we really pull everything together, the third row – probably between P5 and P8 – I think is where we’re looking at the moment.”
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Tricky Tarmac and tight traffic
As expected, the Albert Park street circuit was extremely green as drivers took to it for the first time. Even the benefit of Formula 2 and FIA F3 here this weekend is unlikely to offer substantially more rubber on the public roads that make up the circuit – especially now that rain has washed away so much of what had built up on Thursday and Friday.
Heading into qualifying, with cooler temperatures expected again and a slight risk of more rain, there are two crucial factors that could define the critical hour-long session to decide the grid: traffic and tyre temperature.
Already drivers have been struggling to keep out of the way of their rivals around the circuit. But according to Russell, getting a lap spoiled may not necessarily be as much of a problem here as during a typical qualifying session, thanks to the type of asphalt – or ‘bitumen’, to use the local term – used on the roads.
“I don’t know if the fans watching know too much about it,” he said, “but the difference in Tarmacs from the different races we go to has a real substantial effect on the car and the feeling. Saudi and Melbourne have a similar Tarmac, so you can really push the tyres hard. And you’re seeing you’re able to do one, two, three laps on the soft tyre – which is unique in a way.”
That ability to push the soft tyres for multiple laps could even come into play during the race. After the C5 soft tyre was virtually ignored during last year’s race, this weekend has the C4 nominated as the softest compound, which may prove far more viable.
Heading into Saturday, there are more questions to be answered than usual after two hours of practice. But before teams commit to their set-ups for qualifying, they are set to get a solid hour of final preparation that will likely reveal far more about the true state of the order than is currently known. The question Formula 1 needs to ask itself is, does it want to head into more Saturdays in the future with this same level of uncertainty over how strong each of the ten teams are and, if so, will cutting down its current three hours of practice be the best way of achieving that?
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First and second practice times
|Position||Number||Driver||Team||FP1 time||FP2 time||Gap||Laps|
|1||1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1’18.790||1’19.502||29|
|2||14||Fernando Alonso||Aston Martin-Mercedes||1’19.317||1’18.887||0.097||36|
|4||11||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||1’19.293||1’20.083||0.503||34|
|6||55||Carlos Sainz Jnr||Ferrari||1’19.505||1’19.695||0.715||32|
|11||18||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin-Mercedes||1’19.766||1’20.579||0.976||34|
|15||21||Nyck de Vries||AlphaTauri-Red Bull||1’19.933||1’20.600||1.143||33|
|16||2||Logan Sargeant||Williams-Mercedes||1’20.074||No time||1.284||21|
|17||22||Yuki Tsunoda||AlphaTauri-Red Bull||1’20.399||1’20.220||1.430||32|
|18||77||Valtteri Bottas||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1’20.419||1’20.312||1.522||43|
|19||24||Zhou Guanyu||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1’20.569||1’20.470||1.680||44|
Teams’ progress vs 2022
2023 Australian Grand Prix
- Sainz maintains penalty was “disproportionate” and deserved reviewing
- Why Ferrari’s attempt to overturn Sainz’s penalty looks like a long shot
- Mercedes unsure whether gains seen in Melbourne were ‘track-specific’
- Why Ferrari saw a ‘real step forward in pure performance’ in point-less Australian GP
- “Got away with that one!”: F1 drivers’ unheard reactions to restart chaos